How a Shirt Should Fit, Courtesy of James Bond

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James Bond is almost always a model of how to dress, and no matter the style of his shirts throughout the decades, his bespoke shirts continually demonstrate how a shirt should properly fit. Most ready-to-wear shirts are sized purely by the collar. Fewer and fewer shirts are still sold by the sleeve length, with brands stocking different fits through the body instead. While collar size and sleeve length are the most noticeable parts of a shirt’s fit, there are many more aspects to the fit of a shirt that should be considered.

The Collar

The collar is the most important part of the shirt and the place where an exact fit is most crucial. When buttoned, common wisdom is that you should be able to fit two fingers in the collar. A collar that is too tight is obviously going to be very uncomfortable. When a collar is too loose, the collar will bunch when the tie is tightened.

A perfectly fitted collar on Roger Moore’s Frank Foster dress shirt in Octopussy

When measuring your neck, be aware of how your neck is larger at the base that it is further up. The base of the collar needs to fit comfortable around the base of your neck, and you should be able to turn your head without the collar turning. Be sure to consider how the collar feels when sitting down as well as when standing up.

While the style of a collar is ultimately personal preference, the width, height and point length of the collar should ultimately balance one’s face and neck. Learn more about the shape of a collar.

The Body

The body of the shirt is measured at three places: the chest, the waist and the hips. A shirt should be a minimum of 4 inches/10 centimetres larger than your body’s measurements, so if you measure 40 inches at your chest and 34 inches at your waist, the shirt should measure at least 44 inches at the chest and 38 inches at the waist. However, be aware that shirts generally do not taper that much from the chest to the waist, since the shape of a man’s shirt is much simpler than the shape of his suit, which has more seams and darts.

Sean Connery wears a perfectly fitted dress shirt (possibly from Frank Foster) in Goldfinger

A shirt without stretch that fits any closer than 4 inches larger than the body will pull open at the front when sitting and is more likely to burst at the seams. Shirts also need this allowance to accommodate the way the body changes shape as it moves. Beyond this, how close a shirts fits to the body is ultimately a matter of personal preference. A more traditionally fitted shirt will be 6 to 8 inches larger than the body. Americans have traditionally wore shirts that are much bigger than this.

Darts can be used for a closer or more shaped fit. A good fit can be had for most people without darts, but darts in back can further shape a shirt to better follow the body, and they can shape the shirt more than the side seams alone can. Darts placed closer to the sides will help shape the sides more while darts placed closer to the middle will take in the back more.

Shoulder pleats and rear darts shape the back of Sean Connery’s Turnbull & Asser shirt in From Russia with Love. The upper back has a close fit, but the waist was not tapered so closely because of the difficulty in fitting Connery’s athletic figure.

Pleats on the back of the shirt under the yoke can assist with fit and ease of movement over large shoulder blades. A small pleat on each side is a considerable help, though box pleats in the centre of the back are mostly decorative and add bagginess to the shirt more than they add anything useful.

While the fit through the body can vary by personal preference, a proper fit in the shoulders is less variable. The width of the shoulders should reach the edge of the shoulder and neither extend down the arm nor should end on top of the shoulders. This not only ensures the cleanest look for the shirt but also the best ease of movement.

The slope of the shirt’s shoulders needs to match the slope of the body’s shoulders. The wrong shoulder slope can result in discomfort and bunching or pulling at the top of the chest and back. The wrong collar position also can have a similar affect on the fit of the shirt, since a collar placed too high will show a ripple on the front of the shirt just under the collar, and a collar is is too low will pull at the shoulders. An poor collar placement isn’t noticeable if the collar is worn open, but it is a problem when the collar is worn closed, and it is especially noticeable when worn with a bow tie.

Dr. No Dinner Suit
Sean Connery’s dress shirt in Dr. No has the perfect collar placement, allowing the front to drape cleanly

The body must be long enough to ensure that it stays tucked, but a shirt that is too long—a rare occurrence for most men—will bunch up around the hips and disrupt the lines of one’s trousers. The shirt should be long enough to cover the buttocks in back and reach the crotch in front.

Sleeve Length and Cuff Circumference

There are two schools of thought when it comes to both sleeve length and cuff circumference. Some like their cuffs to fit snugly around the wrist similar to the way a collar fits, with two or three fingers being able to fit inside the fastened cuff. An allowance should be made to fit a watch only on the wrist that applies. This type of cuff stays put at the wrist, and because it is snug it will neither be able to slide down over the hand nor ride up over the forearm.

A fitted cuff needs a sleeve that has some extra length so it does not ride up the arm and cause stress, and thus the sleeve will sit about two inches/five centimetres down the hand beyond where it would sit when buttoned. A little excess sleeve will bunch up behind the cuff when the sleeve is fastened to allow this ease of movement, but when a jacket is worn, the excess is not visible and makes for a neater look overall because the shirt cuff always stays in place.

Fitted cuffs and a little excess sleeve allow the cocktail cuffs on Connery’s Turnbull & Asser shirt to stay in place as he holds up the phone in From Russia with Love.

Others consider a sleeve with slack to be sloppy and prefer a sleeve that ends at the wrist and rides up when the arm moves. The cuff with a sleeve that has no slack needs to have a larger circumference so it is large enough to slide up the forearm and not put stress on the sleeve. This type of sleeve looks cleaner with the arm down because there is no excess, but a larger cuff around the wrist looks sloppy, and it may need to be pulled down out of a jacket sleeve. For a cuff that takes cufflinks, the cufflinks in this case can be inserted before donning the shirt because the cuff is large enough to slip the hand through. This method is preferable for casual shirts that will never be worn with a jacket.

Many consider a cuff to be too large if the hand can slide through. A double (French) cuff that is this big may also not fit inside a jacket sleeve, but a fitted double cuff with the link holes placed too far from the edge can also get stuck in the jacket sleeve. It’s important that double cuffs can fit inside the jacket sleeve without distorting the sleeve or getting stuck inside it. A good double cuff should be able to slide through the jacket sleeve.

The double cuffs on Daniel Craig’s Tom Ford shirt are a little too large to fit comfortably inside the sleeve of his dinner jacket in Quantum of Solace and require occasional adjusting when the jacket sleeves get stuck on the shirt cuffs.

The same principles apply to the fit of double cuffs and button cuffs and the sleeves that go with them. Either school of thought on cuff fit and sleeve length can be applied for any type of cuff. Cocktail cuffs follow the same ideas that ordinary buttons cuffs do.

Sleeve Width and Angle

The fit of the sleeve besides it’s length is often overlooked because when it’s not a problem nobody notices. But with the trend towards everything slimmer today, shirt sleeves have also been slimmed, which has been causing problems. Not only will a sleeve that is too narrow hinder mobility, it will also cause unnecessary wear at the elbow. The arm should be able to bend without feeling stress at the elbow. Sleeve width is determined by a combination of taper, armscye (armhole) size and the angle at which the sleeve is attached.

A narrower sleeve can fit into the same armscye as a wider sleeve can by attaching the narrower sleeve at a more downward angle in relation to the should line. Sleeves attached at a more downward angle are appealing to many people because they are trimmer, and they look neater when one has his arms at his sides because the sleeves are attached closer to that position. This is similar to the way a jacket is tailored, and jacket sleeves ride up with any arm movement. Likewise, when shirt sleeves are attached in this position, they too with ride up more while also hindering mobility and placing more stress on the shirt, particularly across the upper back. This is less desirable in a shirt than it is in a jacket because a jacket is able to be better shaped to the body and is able to withstand more wear and tear.

Narrow sleeves on Craig’s Tom Ford shirt in Spectre show off his muscles, but they’re going to wear out at the elbow sooner rather than later. The angle of sleeve attachment is also causing unnecessary stress across the back.

This style of shirt has come about at a time when people are wearing jackets less and want a neater appearance in their shirts. Shirts intrinsically will never be able to give the same neat appearance that a jacket can. In trying to give them this appearance when the fit is desired to be close to the body in every area, there will be a loss of comfort and mobility while also putting undue stress on the shirt.

More traditionally, a shirt sleeve is attached in a more outward than downward direction, almost following the shoulder line. This style has more practical benefits at the expense of a clean look, but this type of shirt is meant to function best when worn under a jacket. As mentioned earlier, this sleeve will be wider and will not be stressed as much at the elbow and upper back when the arm moves. The more outward angle of attachment means that the sleeve will not ride up as much and can offer a fuller range of movement, but it will have a small fold at the front of the sleeves with the arms at rest. A smaller armscye with this type of sleeve can help it not be too full.

The full sleeves on Sean Connery’s Turnbull & Asser shirt in From Russia With Love are attached at a more outward angle, which is causing the fold in the upper right sleeve. These sleeves will not get in the way of Bond defeating Rosa Klebb!

Unlike with a jacket sleeve, the angle of the sleeve matters more for movement than the size and height of the armscye does. However, when a jacket’s armhole is higher than the shirt’s armhole, the sleeve length will seem to be shorter with the jacket on because the jacket’s armhole pushes up the shirt sleeve.

There needs to be a balance of how a sleeve should be attached to the shirt and what the width of the sleeve should be. Every shirtmaker will have their own idea of what that balance should be and whether its more important to sacrifice looks or mobility.

Always Consider Fit

No matter the type of shirt, whether it’s a dress shirt, a formal shirt or a sports shirt, these principles of a good fit should always hold true. Attention to fit is equally important for both the most formal and the most casual shirts. However, there are some differences in the way different shirts can fit. A casual shirt that is worn untucked should have a straighter cut through the waist and a shorter length than a shirt that is to be worn tucked. But such a shirt should still fit properly in the shoulders. A shirt made of a stretch or knitted material may fit closer to the body than a woven shirt does because it has more give.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Immaculate, Matt – as always! But perhaps some additional remarks on how treating patterned shirtings (?)

    Best,
    Renard

  2. They don’t – I just thought that some remarks about the quality of the making of a shirt would be a nice accomplishment. But it’s really off focus.

  3. Wow, I love your analysis and discussion of the 2 schools of thought regarding how to achieve the proper sleeve length. I’ve only ever read of the alternative approach a few times, and have never seen it put in terms of one being better for shirts worn with a jacket vs without. But your reasoning is sound and I will definitely be adopting this approach. Thank you for distilling it so perfectly!

    • Regardless of what type of shirt I get, I like snug cuffs with longer sleeves due to the range of movement it gives. I don’t mind the gathered fabric at the cuff when at rest. For example, I wear my Sebastian Ward shirt (which uses the same approach to sleeve fit) without a jacket sometimes like the models do: https://www.sebastianward.com/

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